Environmentalist Annie Leonard

Environmentalist explains The Story of Stuff project.

Annie Leonard has spent nearly 20 years and visited more than 40 countries working on environmental health and justice issues. She currently directs The Story of Stuff Project, which includes an animated Web-film about the life-cycle of material goods—used as a teaching tool in schools and meetings across the globe—and a published book version of the film. The Seattle, WA native was coordinator of the Funders Workgroup for Sustainable Production and Consumption and co-created the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives.



Tavis: Annie Leonard is a noted environmentalist, filmmaker and author whose latest text is called “The Story of Stuff.” The project also features a companion piece that you can view online. Here now, a scene from “The Story of Stuff.”
Tavis: So what’s missing from the explanation?
Annie Leonard: Almost everything, actually. All of the stuff in our lives has this whole life before it comes to us in the metals where it’s mined, in the forests where the trees are felled, in the oceans where the fish are drawn, in the factories where children and women are working hard to make this stuff, exposed to carcinogens and reproductive toxins, working sometimes horrible hours. Then it comes to us. We have it for minutes sometimes, throw it away, and then it goes to some dump or incinerator, often back overseas.
So all of the stuff in our lives really has this very, very long life and we only get to know it in a very tiny part where we see it, which is the beautiful part. So there’s a lot of hidden environmental, social and health impacts. I became so interested in this I really did travel around the world for over a decade and visited hundreds of factories where our stuff is made and dumps where our stuff is dumped, so I just got to see this firsthand.
Tavis: Does that mean that Annie Leonard is anti-stuff?
Leonard: No, actually. I’m so glad you asked that. I’m actually pro-stuff. A lot of people have said, “Are you anti-stuff?” Or occasionally I get these wacko emails where people say, “Why don’t you go live in a cave or something then?”
I’m actually pro-stuff in the sense that I want us to have more appreciation and reverence and knowledge about where our stuff came from. Right now, with this culture of consumerism that we have in this country, we’re just buying and chucking stuff all the time without stopping to think who mined that metal? Was it some kid in the Congo who had to drop out of school to go mine this so I could get the new cell phone?
Who made these electronics? Did some woman lose her ability to have healthy children because she’s working in an IBM factory in the clean room? Who along the way pitched in to get this stuff and where is it going? I just wanted us to start thinking a little more critically about where all this stuff comes from and what impacts does it have beyond our field of vision.
Tavis: Does that mean that we are wrong to make assumptions, then, about companies being responsible in the making of the stuff they pass on to us?
Leonard: There are some companies that are definitely responsible and that are trying to do well. I’m sorry to say that those are the minority right now. The general practice right now is that companies are using an enormous amount of toxic chemicals in our products. A lot of people don’t realize how much toxic chemicals are in our products, in our furniture, in our cosmetics, in our electronics, and those toxic chemicals then get into our homes.
There have been some great studies where environmental groups have tested the dust in people’s households. It’s full of toxic chemicals because it’s in all of our products, and as long as we keep letting companies use these toxic chemicals we’re going to keep getting them.
I’ll tell you, I’m actually a good example in this because I try to be as vigilant as possible, and I have a lot of awareness about this so I don’t use Scotch Guard, I don’t have PVC in my house, I don’t have BPA and Teflon pans, all these things that I know about. I keep them out of my house.
But when doing the research for this book I had my own body burden tested to see what toxic chemicals are in my own body, and there are dozens and dozens of toxic chemicals in my body. It goes to show how we cannot solve this problem in terms of individual vigilance alone. We need our government to be more protective and proactive in limiting the toxic chemicals that companies are allowed to use in their products.
Tavis: As vigilant as you are, where, then, do you suspect that the toxins in your body come from?
Leonard: They just come from everywhere because they’re all over. Food is one source. Really, electronics, skin care products, cosmetics. Cosmetics is actually a technical term that means all personal care products. It’s not just makeup for women.
Deodorant, sunscreen, hair conditioner, all those things are loaded with toxic chemicals, and one of the things that both is exciting and infuriating is that the European Union has taken a very different approach, both for personal care products and for electronics.
The European Union has said you have to get toxics out of these products. The European Union has banned over a thousand toxic chemicals from personal care products, but our personal care products are still allowed to have them.
Same thing with electronics – in the European Union they’ve banned lead, a neurotoxin; mercury, another neurotoxin; cadmium, a carcinogen; flame retardants – all these toxic chemicals the EU says is not allowed to be in electronics over there, but we still allow them in our electronics. It just makes me think why not here? If they can do it, why not here?
Tavis: What’s the difference, then, in terms of why they’ve been progressive in this area and we in the States have not been? What gives?
Leonard: I think there’s a bunch of different factors. One is I think the Europeans have a more – a different relationship to the state. In Europe there’s a broader, more social awareness in a broader sense, that it’s appropriate for the state to get involved and take precautionary action to protect public health, whereas here there’s still a hesitation about the state getting involved, and here we’ve really allowed corporations to dominate the political process.
So in Europe the government says, “Take the toxic chemicals out,” and the companies say, “I don’t know how,” and the government says, “Figure it out.” Here the government says, “Take the toxic chemicals out,” the companies say, “I don’t know how,” and the government says, “Oh, it’s okay, you don’t have to.” So they’ve just taken a more precautionary and protective approach in Europe.
Tavis: How do you flip that, though? I think it was Calvin Coolidge who once said that the business of America is business. If we believe that and if we behave in that way, how do you ever flip the script, so to speak?
Leonard: Well, I’m all for business and I’m all for economic activity. As I said earlier I don’t want to go back to wearing burlap sacks and living in caves. I’m all for an economy. But I think the economy has to serve and business has to serve a greater goal, which is public health, social equity, social justice, clean, healthy environment, thriving, healthy economies. Those should be our goals.
As long as our businesses are contributing to those goals, excellent, let’s have more, let’s turn it up, let’s turn up the volume on those good, healthy, clean jobs.
Tavis: How do you do that, though, without people labeling you, as some already have, without being labeled anti-American, anti-capitalist?
Leonard: Those labels just baffle me. The anti-American one really baffles me because I consider it an incredible tribute to my country that I’m saying hey, we’re not doing as well here as we could be. If I didn’t care about America I’d say fine, drown in your toxic chemicals, but I love this country. I’m like come on, we can do so much better. We’re Americans. We don’t need to poison each other, we don’t need to trash the planet, we don’t need to hog our disproportionate share of the world’s resources.
We have 5 percent of the world’s population and we use 30 percent of the world’s resources. That’s not okay. The America I know cares about fairness, cares about health, cares about taking care of each other. That’s what I’m standing strong for – that America.
Tavis: What do you think, then, drives, to your subtitle, our obsession as Americans with stuff?
Leonard: I think there’s a number of things. One is the excessive commercialization in our society. We are just bombarded with commercials from day one, and anyone who has a kid knows it is from day one, so the result is we end up with a population that can identify hundreds of brands of shoes or cars or blue jeans and doesn’t know where their city council meets. They don’t know how to engage in democracy anymore.
I really see this when I travel around the country and I give talks and I show this film, “The Story of Stuff,” and it lays out a really broad, systemic critique of our materials economy.
I cannot tell you how often somebody raises their hand when I’m done and says, “What can I buy differently to solve this problem?” I’ve come to see that we have two different parts of us – we have a consumer part and we have a citizen part. That consumer part is spoken to and validated and nurtured so much from the time we’re so little that we really have this overdeveloped consumer muscle, this overdeveloped consumer identity.
The citizen muscle has atrophied, and it’s so depressing when I go around and talk to people about these issues. I say, “Well, what else can you think of doing?” It’s all I can do this, I can do this. I’m wondering why are we not saying, “We can do this?” What have we ever achieved as a society by one individual? It’s always been collective action engaged in the political process, yet we’re getting all these messages telling us if we just recycle, if we just carry our own bag to the store it’ll be fine.
It won’t be fine. The sum of all those things, even if we did all those green lifestyle things, it’s not enough to get our economy back on a sustainable and healthy path, and it’s letting the beauty of this country and our democracy just go to waste.
Tavis: I’m trying to figure out if the people who are giving us these messages about what we can do to reduce, reuse, recycle – a good message, accurate message, no doubt about that. But I’m trying to figure out whether or not these people are just well-intentioned but not thinking big enough, or conversely whether or not there is a benign neglect on the part of those who know what we ought to be doing but have their own reasons for not really telling us that we’ve got to be more aggressive about this.
Leonard: That’s an excellent question. I think there’s both. I think there’s a lot of environmental groups who really honestly care about the planet and their analysis just hasn’t gone deep enough so they’re still stuck in this turn off the light when you leave the room, ride your bicycle and we’ll be fine.
But there is also a very concerted effort to convince us that being a responsible consumer is all we need to do, and I’ll tell you one of the industries that’s really at the forefront of that is the plastics industry.
In the 1980s there was a growing concern among the public about plastics. It was washing up on beaches and landfills were filled up and people learned that if you burned it in incinerators it released all these toxic chemicals, so the plastics industry got together and said, “Let’s convince the American public that plastic is recyclable.”
You might remember all those commercials about the station wagon jitters to a halt and all the milk spills, but it doesn’t break because it’s in plastic, and all these pro-plastic things. That was a concerted effort to get us to recycle plastics because that will make us feel like we’re actually doing our part.
It works, and when people throw something in the blue bin you feel better than when you throw it in the garbage can, so in a way it’s sort of like a panacea. It deludes us into thinking that we’re doing something to help when we’re not, really.
Tavis: So speaking of doing something to help, when you have these seminars around the country, people show up to see you give your talk and they see this film that we’ve seen parts of here in this conversation, and they ask what is it that I can do, how do I learn more?
I think part of the problem in America is that there’s so much coming at us, as you know, every day, how does the average American find out the stuff that you have found out? Because let’s face it – we ain’t got the capacity to travel around the world for 10 years doing what you did. I’m glad you did it, but how does the average American discover what you know and then get prompted to do what you’re telling us we need to be doing?
Leonard: Well, there was not the Internet when I first started so now it’s a lot easier. You can research tons of this stuff online and there’s wonderful organizations. You can go to our website, which is StoryofStuff.org, and we have for free all these different movies that examine different parts of the materials economy, lots of organizations to connect to.
You can read the book; it has lots of details of what I saw visiting garment factories in Haiti or toxic waste dumps in South Africa where we for years sent our toxic waste to South Africa under apartheid and it was dumped in the Black communities where nobody could move. We were just doing that for years and years.
I went to Bhopal, India, the site of the largest chemical industrial disaster ever. I have all those stories in there plus lots of ideas about how people can get involved.
Tavis: Her name is Annie Leonard, and her new book is called “The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession with Stuff is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities and Our Health,” and “A Vision for Change,” a wonderful documentary that comes along with that, as you just heard from Annie a moment ago. Annie, thanks for the book. Good to have you on the program.
Leonard: Thank you so much. Good to be here.

Tavis: My pleasure to have you.

Last modified: September 26, 2011 at 7:38 pm